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Pet custody arguments are becoming common in divorce

Many Maryland residents consider their pets to be a bona fide member of the family. When divorce happens, however, more couples are disagreeing over where their pets will go. The courts have begun to acknowledge that for many people, pets are not like furniture that was acquired during the marriage.

Under the law, however, pets are considered personal property. Pet owners think differently, and some judges are allowing discussion of who gets the family pet. A New York judge broke with tradition and allowed oral arguments, something that set a precedent in that state. Some judges will ask the spouse with a desire to keep the pet just what they are willing to pay for it.

Attorneys say that negotiation over custody of a pet may become acrimonious at times. In one such case, it took three years for a wife to gain custody of the couple's dog even though she had owned the dog prior to the marriage. A veterinarian and friends testified that it was the wife who cared for the dog and who had been its owner. The dog was finally awarded to the wife but died six months later under what was considered suspicious circumstances. In cases where domestic violence is alleged, the pet may be given to the spouse who files a restraining order.

The cost of arguing over pet custody may be high. One pet owner spent $60,000 doing this. Having a prenuptial agreement in place that covers the disposition of a pet is recommended. An attorney may assist a client decide on pet custody by determining who is the primary caregiver for the animal and who bonds most strongly with it.

Source: The Daily Beast, "Divorce Is Going to the Dogs, Literally", Keli Goff, June 20, 2014

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